Foreword to War and Work by former Lt. Col. A.L. "Scoop" Adams
I’ve known Thurman
"T.I." Miller since the First Marine Division was formed at Camp
Lejeune, North Carolina in 1942. My job was platoon leader of the First
Platoon of "K" Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines. T.I., myself,
and "Mo" Darsey, who had spent two years as a Marine in China and thus
had made Sergeant, made up the "headquarters unit" of the First
Platoon and as such hung together most of the time.
We were sent to New Zealand to establish a camp in preparation for America's battle to control the South Pacific. All the New Zealand workers were on strike and consequently the Marines had to unload the ship. The striking workers came down to watch the Marines work all night. To the New Zealanders' amazement the Marines had the job done in twenty-four hours. They didn't know Marines!
Within two weeks we left for Guadalcanal. At The Island, as they called it, we unloaded our equipment and prepared to land. As the Marines went down the nets along the sides of the ship and settled in the boats they watched the Navy prepare the beach. One cruiser and some sort of gunboat made a pass at moderate speed along the beach, and that was it.
Our boat held the third platoon, and we had the squads arranged so they would each hit the beach as a unit. Mo was in the stern so that if the lead force was wiped out his men could take over. Just as we started down, believe it or not, someone started singing. They sang--what else?--The Marine Hymn, "From the halls of Montezuma," over and over. No matter what might happen I was so proud of these men.
T.I. was to be the first man out of the boat on the port side, near the Navy coxswain running the boat. This was a different Navy man than we had trained with for the past several weeks. I was on the starboard side where I would be first man out of the boat on that side. When we were halfway to the beach I crawled across to the coxswain. Our prior coxswain, a Coast Guardsman, had told us he would “drive this boat right up into the coconut trees just so you guys have a fair chance to go in and do the job you have to do.” I tapped this new Navy man on the shoulder and reminded him that when we scraped the beach he was to hold the throttle open and thus hold the boat in place until all the Marines were out. He informed me that he was in charge of the boat and would take us in only far enough that he could safely get the boat back out.
At Camp Lejeune, 1942
At that moment, T.I. tapped me on the shoulder and signaled me not to worry. I knew he had something in mind and I felt better. The boat scraped bottom and I felt it throttle way back, but we were still in at least ten fathoms of water, too deep to negotiate with our heavy packs and weapons. Then I felt the engines come on full power, and the boat pushed further up the beach. As I went over the side I looked across at the Navy man. Someone had knocked him out. Mo later told me T.I. had done what he signaled he would do. He had watched the coxswain drive the boat and figured out how it was done. When the coxswain slowed down T.I. tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around T.I decked him, opened the throttles wide, steered the boat toward the beach, and went over the port side as he’d been trained to do. The Marines thus made a safe landing. He saved the lives of a lot of the guys in that boat. He was determined that the boat would get in there.
At the end of four long months of combat the Marines were withdrawn. Sick, wounded, having survived on wormy rice captured from the Japanese, they attempted to board ship in the traditional Marine way, by climbing the cargo nets on the side of the ship. The first few started up the net then lost their grip and fell back in the boat. Recognizing the problem, the ship lowered a conventional ladder with steps and a handrail. Even then, after their long ordeal on the island, many men had trouble. The Navy stationed sailors along the ladder to help the Marines aboard.
They were a weary group of men, dressed in rags that had been uniforms four months earlier. But their pride never left them. The words of the sailors who were helping them up the ladder were a welcome seldom heard by Marines.
Lt. Colonel A.L. Adams
Chapter 12: Sailing for Guadalcanal
Chapter 13: On the Island of Death
Chapter 33: Coal mining
My family has deep roots in southern West Virginia. My great-grandfather on my father’s side, Franklin Sizemore, was one of the earliest settlers here, part of a large migration from North Carolina in the mid-19th century. According to histories of the area, he cleared the land that eventually became my hometown of Otsego. I recently discovered that he also cleared the ground for what became the town of Helen, where I settled in 1956. According to the Reference Book of Wyoming County by Mary Bowman, Franklin was born in North Carolina in 1817 and married Mary “Polly” Workman, moving with her to Logan County about 1840. They “lived for a short time on Micajah Ridge, then settled near the mouth of Cedar Creek. [Franklin] made the clearings where Caloric and Otsego now stand. He was elected and served as assessor 1859-1860… He raised his one room log cabin near the mouth of Cedar Creek. In 1874 he added a room to his cabin and in it taught the first term of public school in his area, and continued teaching several terms. Eight to twelve pupils attended his school…In old age he moved to Bower’s Ridge [near what is now Twin Falls State Park] and died there.” Franklin and Polly had at least four children, Lewis, Miles, Wiley and Myra. My grandfather, William Miller, son of Jacob and Rhoda Miller, who were also well known in the area, married Myra. My father Eli Center Miller was one of William and Myra’s many children.
Grandfather William (l) and my father Eli Center Miller
just down the hill from Cedar Creek, is in the Slab Fork district north of
Mullens on what is now Route 54.
My parents, Eli Center Miller (called “Center”) and Elvira Rinehart Meadows
Miller, each had a previous marriage. Elvira’s husband was killed by
malaria in about 1913, probably contracted on their farm on a small island off
Pensacola. Eli’s wife Nancy Farley Miller died of unknown causes,
possibly influenza, at about the same time. Eli and Elvira married in 1915. I
was born in 1919 in Cedar Creek, which is just up the mountain from the town of
Otsego. I was named after the historic New River town of Thurmond, although I
didn’t know it until I was nearly grown. I adopted the “Thurman” spelling
when I entered high school.
Of Eli and Elvira’s union four of us survived to adulthood: in order of birth, my sister Gladys, brother James (“Buck”), myself, and sister Kathy. Another brother, Dempsey, died as an infant. Gladys lives in Delaware, and Kathy and I in Helen, West Virginia. Sadly, Buck passed away just before this book was completed.
I was fortunate to have had the joy of many brothers and sisters. My father’s children by his first marriage were Opal, Orpha, Nettie, Kermit and Gilbert. Elvira’s children by hers were William Preston (who died as an infant, as described in Chapter 6), Dewey, Lillie, Huey, Mary, Vinson, Lee, and Della. A coal train killed Dewey when he was only thirteen, as I will tell near the end of this book.
I loved my brothers and sisters on both sides. I was closer to some than others but generally speaking I could tell no basic difference between them and my full ones. It was one of those humorous dilemmas in which “Your kids and my kids are beating the hell out of our kids!” Mullens became my reference point when I was asked where I was from, although Otsego was truly my hometown. I grew into manhood there. I recall my first auto ride there, truly an adventure into the unknown. I guess it was a full three miles, but I remember thinking what a big world it was. A small boy remembers small boy things. I remember playing in Cedar Creek. Naked or clothed, it didn’t matter to me. They say I clad myself once in just an old necktie. I guess I must have been the subject of much laughter. The railroad men thought this was very amusing for the tale has followed me down to the time of this writing. The railroad was installed in Cedar Creek for the W.M. Ritter Lumber Company, which began timbering up in Cedar Creek. This made it necessary to lay track up by where we lived. As small children, we all enjoyed watching the log trains come and go and waved at the men working on it. After the logging was completed, the lumber company left the track for a few years. They also left some little flat cars they had used for hauling supplies. When I got older we would push these cars to about a mile above our home, load them with wood, and let them drift back down. Once as we crossed a rather long bridge, Buck fell off into the mud and almost buried himself in it. We laughed as we pulled him out.
As a small child I found refuge behind our large cook stove and lay there and napped when it was cold. Being the youngest, I was selected to come home with Mom and help with the noonday meal, or rather the fuel with which to cook it. She also put me to gritting meal. The gritter was a simple means of tearing an ear of corn up into meal so it could be used in baking bread. The gritter was made from a heavy piece of tin punched full of holes with a ten-penny nail and bowed so the holes pointed their jagged edges outward. I would rub the ear along the jagged part and it ground the grain into very small particles. Mom was an artist at making corn bread.
We didn’t have glass marbles as children have today. Instead, we played with “kemmy dabs,” marbles made of hard-baked clay. They were not quite as large as today’s marbles. As children are wont to do I had one in my mouth and somehow it got caught in my windpipe. I remember the agony of not being able to breathe. The cry went up: “Mommy, Thurman is choking to death!” She came running and pounded me on the back while pushing me forward. This failed to dislodge the kemmy dab so she picked me up by the heels and began to shake me up and down. I can still see the kemmy dab falling out of my mouth and hitting the ground. I had almost choked to death and only with the help of a caring and loving mother did I survive.
By the age of ten I had begun hunting the cows and this chore kept me close to nature year ‘round. I sang as I wandered the mountains. When new life burst forth in the spring it meant fishing in Cedar Creek and an abundance of small game. There were rabbits, groundhog, coon, foxes, and all manner of wildlife. Maybe it was my imagination, but they never seemed afraid of me in the woods. The squirrels kept their distance but were not disturbed by my presence. I guess this may have had some bearing on why I never killed them much as I grew up. My Dad told of bigger game when he was a boy. He said there were plenty of bear, wildcat, and so on. Many things will impress a small boy. I had moments when I would soar away on the wings of imagination. Sometimes I was a cowboy.
Sometimes I was a soldier and went off to war.
 For an excellent introduction to the history of the Mullens area see the article by Catherine Henderson in the Bibliography. Ed.
The USS Wakefield
The USS Wakefield was a large ship and in her glory she had been a luxury liner
of the finest of the nation. Her staterooms, dining halls, and decks were still
intact though converted to haul troops. 172 men of K Company, Regulars and
Reserves, boarded the Wakefield on May 20, 1942, heading for New Zealand.
("Regular" Marines, such as myself, volunteered for service.
"Reserve" Marines were drafted. It didn’t make a bit of difference
on Guadalcanal or Cape Gloucester.)
Within a few weeks twenty-five members of our company would be killed in action, fifty-four others seriously wounded. Thirty-one more would develop malaria severely enough to be sent him home, although many others didn’t show symptoms for months or years. Many just didn't survive long enough to contract the disease. We would remain on the island of death with few provisions for eight weeks. Most of us had two pairs of pants, a shirt, a jacket, shoes, a helmet that was used for many different purposes, and a poncho for our shelter. Of the 911 Marines of the famous First Division, 744 would be killed.
One member of our company (PFC Weldon DeLong) would receive the Navy Cross for heroism, eight would earn Silver Stars, and one a Bronze Star.
But the voyage began uneventfully. The Japanese threw a torpedo across our bow outside the Panama Canal but missed, and the rest of our voyage was calm except for a storm four days out of New Zealand. We docked at Wellington and were hurried out to a base that had been hastily put up to accommodate our arrival. Our six or so odd weeks in the port were filled with the hustle and bustle of loading and unloading, the repacking, the regrouping of the material and we knew we were going somewhere soon.
We took liberty several times in the city and surrounding towns. They were English-speaking people, New Zealand being a commonwealth of England. Their food was both good and plentiful and their restaurants were about the same as in the United States except the prices generally were cheaper.
Meanwhile, world events had so shaped the image of America since “Pearl” that something was needed to not only boost morale in the United States but also to shake up the Nippon command, which up to now had been supreme in the Pacific. America had been strictly on the defensive. We found we were to be committed to this goal. We soon learned of our mission: Guadalcanal. If we didn’t take it from the Japanese, within two or three weeks they would complete the airstrip later called Henderson Field, and Australia and New Zealand would have certainly been their next target. It was strictly a Navy action, and in particular a First Marine Division battle.
Hardened as we were we still were not battle-tried. The high command in Washington needed to know how our troops would hold up in the jungle. As I said, they had only one outfit ready for landing and offensive duty, the First Marine Brigade, or Division as it was now called. They sent us into the malaria-infested region and labeled us simply “expendable.” The question was, how will our men do? Can they endure? Can they account for themselves? One division will tell us.
Word again came to board ship and again we waited. We played cribbage, poker, anything to be busy. Some of us cleaned our rifles and arranged our packs. We took stock of our ammo. Each in his own way readied himself for whatever his thoughts led him to. Some men prayed, some cursed, and some were silent.
Well out at sea the order was given. We would assemble in the Fiji Islands and have one day of practice landing. On the last leg of our journey, we would effect a landing on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Two of the smaller islands were also on the list.
The landing at Fiji proved to be foolish. The Navy got their orders mixed up and shelled the beach after we had made our landing. They finally stopped in time to keep from killing someone.
We spent the day just looking around on the island. We found some coconut with the husk still on and were in the slow process of cutting it off with our machete when two natives came along dressed in just their loincloths. They had a sharp stick and I presumed it was a weapon of sorts. They gazed in wonderment at us for a few moments, put their sharp stick in the ground, and proceeded with just three strokes to completely strip the coconut of the husk.
The night before our landing on Guadalcanal I lit a cigarette with a dollar bill. I still have the fragments.
Our “D” day, our landing on Guadalcanal, came on August 7, 1942. The evening of August 6 they fed us a sumptuous dinner. I told a man who owed me ten dollars to forget it, the debt was canceled. That night, I asked myself the questions I guess all men ask at one time or another. Will I run? Will I be afraid? The answers were soon forthcoming.
 A complete sailing roster for the Wakefield appears as Appendix B. Ed.
August 7, 1942. Dawn came
at 0400 and they roused us to breakfast. We could hear the ships shelling the
island even before we came on deck to disembark. As Scoop recalled many years
platoon was divided into two parts for the landing at Guadalcanal. We all landed
in the very first wave to hit the beach on D-Day, the 7th of August. The night
before the landing those of us who were boat commanders were called into a
wardroom aboard the U.S.S. Fuller. The battalion commander informed us that
intelligence indicated that the next morning when we landed we were going to run
into machine gun fire, heavy caliber anti-bullet guns, rifle fire, automatic
weapons, barbed wire, and land mines on the beaches. He said, “Very
frankly, the estimate is that nobody who lands in the first wave will come out
of it alive. Now, it’s up to you whether you want to tell your platoons this
or you want to keep this to yourselves.” I thought about it awhile and I
decided I should keep nothing from the guys in that platoon. I had plenty of
faith in them. I went down to the platoon compartment. They had borrowed a
grindstone from the ship and were sharpening their bayonets. I passed the
word to them exactly as I’d heard it in the wardroom. I told them if there’s
anybody who figures tomorrow morning he just can’t make it going in there, if
he’ll come see me tonight—and I told them where I’d be sleeping, on the
open deck on a coil of rope—I know we can figure out something so he won’t
have to go in. I got no comment from the platoon guys at all, except Dutch
Schantzenbach who said ‘Let’s go get them Japs!’ The next morning we
got in the boat and we circled in the rendezvous area first, then we went out
and crossed the line of departure. I was worried that now would be the time if
anyone did break. I looked back in the boat and in the stern I caught the eye of
Bucky Kling (sp?), a corporal. On the ship on the way over to New Zealand
he had formed what he used to call a “glee club.” As I recall, Mo Darsey
sang lead tenor. Bucky looked at me and I could read his lips. He asked me
if I wanted to hear them sing and I said yes. And of course, what did they sing?
“The Halls of Montezuma,” over and over again until we hit the beach. If
that were done in a movie today you’d be laughed out of the theater. But it
was absolutely true then…
Down the rope
nets into the Higgins boats. No longer mock-up ships standing still, but real
ones, tossing in the waves. No longer a simulated enemy. Into the rocking boats,
circling together with the others, forming the boats into lines and waves. The
distance between us and that foreboding-looking shoreline began to lessen. The
burst of shells was punctuated by the deeper sound of exploding bombs.
What is it like? What do men think of when they’re about to die? I couldn’t sense the feelings of the man next to me, for now he was a stranger to me. I was alone in the world. Never in my life had I experienced a feeling of utter abandonment such as I had now. I was at last headed into something from which I may not return. Now I was truly on my own.
As the boat drew near the beach a knot gathered in my throat. I knew I might meet my Maker in the next few minutes. I felt the boat scrape the sandy bottom and leaped out of the boat. As suddenly as it had come the fear left. I was filled with the desire to lead my squad over the side of the boat. I was the first out of my boat. There were no bullets, no sound except the man behind me. I ran toward the jungle. Still no gunfire. We had caught the enemy off guard. Our landing was unopposed.
Not knowing what we were facing was in some ways as bad as if we had been fired on. The landing on Guadalcanal had been made, the first offensive action against the Japanese Imperial Forces. We were informed that the President had received the message. “Sir, the Marines have landed and have the situation well in hand.”
Truly, we had given the nation a shot in the arm and her morale had been lifted a little. However, we were not so stupid as to think this was the end of the matter. We knew the Japanese must retaliate and quickly, or lose face.
We proceeded to unload our supplies beginning with the ammunition. We had barely gotten started with unloading the most important item-food-before the planes came. They came in waves. High altitude bombers, low altitude bombers, fighters. They were after the ships, our supplies, and they sought to strafe our lines.
The Navy began pulling their ships out to sea in order to save some of them. In a short while the sea was empty of ships. We watched the last of them go out of sight and it gave us a feeling of isolation. We knew that Wake Island had fallen to the Japanese, so we had one thought in common. Dig in and die!
Now the war caught us. All hell broke loose. By day we could set our watches by the arrival of the bombers. They came in waves and were consistent in their quest to dislodge us from our positions. By night, a small sub-based biplane would circle overhead. His motor had a nerve-racking sound to it. He would circle until just before dawn and then drop his hundred-pound bomb. You never knew where he was going to drop it.
On the third day the Japanese fleet returned to the area and began shelling the beach. They began late at night and caught us off-guard. The shelling continued well into the night and some of us sought refuge behind what we thought were crates of food. When “Charlie” came over and dropped a flare I raised the edge of the tarp and saw that our hiding place was a row of ammunition boxes about a hundred feet long and ten feet high! If a shell had found this mark it would have moved the beach in a few hundred feet.
By the fourth day we had moved out and established a beachhead. Our perimeter of defense was roughly seven miles long and two miles deep. It was rather thin in places but we simply did not have the personnel to man it all in the way it should have been manned.
By now our intelligence had ascertained that only a small detachment of soldiers and a rather large group of laborers defended the island. They had scattered all over the jungle as the firing began. We even found their breakfast tables with food still on them untouched. Their laundry was out on lines. We began to find them a few at a time.
We all knew this could not last and the enemy would surely try to take the island back. The Japanese began to build up a fighting force on the island at night by bringing fast-moving surface ships and submarines down “The Slot” between the New Georgia island group and Santa Isabel and Choiseul islands to the east. Each vessel carried a small number of troops and each night they left them on the island. We knew the fighting would soon begin in earnest.
We had only our old Springfield rifles. During the campaign for Guadalcanal the Army units which followed us in were equipped with semi-automatic M1’s, which some Marines promptly stole, leaving their 03 rifles in their place!
On August 12 one of the patrols from the intelligence section of the Fifth Regiment made contact with a Japanese officer at the mouth of the Matanikau River. He spoke fluent English and had in fact been a graduate of Ohio University. He informed the patrol that the detachment of soldiers he commanded wished to surrender. The patrol returned to the perimeter and informed the commanding officer of the regiment intelligence section. Such a capture would have put a feather in the cap of the Colonel and would also have had a demoralizing effect on the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge took his entire command, consisting of most of the intelligence section, to accept the surrender.
They did not return. Only three men, Corporal Sweeney, PFC Arndt, and Sergeant Few got back to the perimeter to tell the story. The patrol had been ambushed and all the rest killed. Their tale of the nightmare on the beach at the mouth of the river circulated quickly around the division.
A few days later K Company, of which I was a member, was dispatched to search for the patrol and find, engage, and destroy the Japanese detachment. Our perimeter of defense did not include the river at this time and so our approach up the coast through the jungle was with the utmost caution. We played it by the book until we reached the banks of the river. Just across the sand spit we found what we were looking for. The remains of the patrol. No contact had been made with the enemy yet; our first order had been to find the patrol. Mission accomplished and, here they were. Here were all the horrors of war, all the degrees of degradation to which the human race could descend.
I looked down at the shoe sticking out of the sand. I kicked it. It still contained the foot of the owner. I scraped in the sand and uncovered another legging with the leg still in it. It had been neatly severed just below the knee. Nearby was a helmet. It still contained the head. A few yards away lay a shirt. No arms, no head, just the torso.
We were hardened by much training. Our reflexes were sudden. Our minds were alert. Now our killing potential increased. The second ingredient, hatred, was now added. Hatred tore at our beings with satanic force. What kind of warfare was this? Our manuals had not covered this. The book had failed us. We could not turn to chapter and verse. We threw away the book that day on the sand spit on Guadalcanal. From now on, it would be their way. There were no words of agreement, no fanfare, no loud cursing or crying, only grimness and resolve.
We returned, reported, took up our positions on the line, and dug in to wait.
There was never, to my knowledge, a formal report of what we had found. There has never been any mention of the Goettge Patrol in the official Marine Corps publication The Old Breed, although it’s been reported in such books as The Sun Stood Still by Don Richter and the recent Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers.
When the uploading began on our first day on the beach all of the “goodies” had gone to division headquarters. Most of the food allotted to the fighting forces had gone away with our ships when they sailed away. Headquarters had cereal, cake, and other tasties. By contrast, we had been reduced to wormy rice twice a day. The rice was unpolished. It contained much food value, and without it we would have starved. The second day we picked out the worms and ate the rest. Strangely enough, on the third day, we could detect no worms in it. We ate, we lived.
The division headquarters requested a work force from the front lines every day and it came our time to work. They were baking a big cake that day and we had observed how they reacted when the cry of “Air raid!” sounded. Weldon DeLong, one of the most colorful men I served with, saw this as the opportunity of a lifetime, so he let go the yell. Immediately everyone vanished—everyone, that is, except the work detail. We heard no planes. We all proceeded very calmly to have ourselves a piece of cake. The Colonel came out of his bunker and saw through our plot. He approached our platoon leader and I wondered how he was going to handle a piece of cake in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a salute all at the same time without getting caught. He quickly put both hands behind his back, dropped the cigarette, transferred the cake to his left hand and saluted smartly with his right hand.
Scoop Adams had done it again.
An occasional boat would make it in with a few supplies, but they were diverted to other places besides our lines. We would send out scavengers to round up some of these supplies. A buddy and I tried making donuts with some ingredients they had swiped. The donuts sank to the bottom of the can of shortening. We ate them anyhow.
If it didn’t move, we ate it. Sometimes we ate it if it did move. Once during the beginning of naval gunfire I kicked over a coffee can. When I returned after the shelling I found two of the men picking up the leaves the coffee grounds had fallen on and stuffing them, leaves and all, back into the can. This marked eight times those grounds had been boiled.
Some Japanese spoke perfect English. “Hey Joe!” they would yell. “My name ain’t Joe!” we replied, and the caller was promptly shot. Scoop recalls:
found several dead Japanese wearing Marine Corps uniforms. At times we thought
we were getting rifle fire from a friendly outfit until we discovered the
Japanese were using Marine Corps rifles too. We also found booklets that had
typical expressions written in English that Marines used, marked so they could
pronounce them, then they had the same reading in Japanese beside them, like
“Cease firing” and “Knock off the shooting.” They were also writing down
nicknames that we used among ourselves. I found one place where they had
“Scoop” written down. Once I heard a guy yell, “Hey Scoop, knock off the
shooting!” Later we realized it was the Japanese yelling that stuff.
The air raids continued by day and word came that our fleet was on the way. That
night, a terrible battle raged at sea. At about three o’clock in the morning
shells began to fall on our lines. We knew Henderson Field was taking a beating,
for the greatest concentration of the shelling was there. We had been shelled
before but this was different. These shells were big and we knew they were
coming from a battleship.
A Solomon Islands native still proudly wearing his Marine dog tags fifty years later. Photo courtesy magazine of the Solomon Islands
I had made myself a one-man air raid shelter. I knew it would not withstand a direct hit but it would give me some protection from flying shrapnel and spent casings. While the warships shelled us from the sea the Japanese on the ground began lobbing mortars into our positions. At the same time the ground troops came at our lines from several places. I had taken refuge in the shelter, which was about twenty feet from the foxhole. I could hear the mortar shells coming closer and closer, and again my heart began to pound. Then the shells began to explode a little further away and I knew they had missed me again. I lay back in my shelter to wait for the coming of day. Not so! Word came along the line for the platoon to move out and take up a new position along the ridge. We did so, and as we took up this new position there were no holes to get into, no logs to get behind. From whatever depression we could squeeze into we held off the enemy until daybreak.
With the coming of dawn the shelling stopped. I went back to my foxhole and four feet away was a neat five-inch hole in the ground. I looked down into the hole at the end of an unexploded five-inch shell. A near miss!
The stillness was uncanny. The sun came up through the mist. The clouds caught its light in such a manner as to send two rays up into the atmosphere in the form of a huge “V”. An omen? You could feel every man looking at it, and if there was ever a group needing reassurance it was us.
The graveyard at Guadalcanal. Photo courtesy Infantry Journal Press.
 This quote and others from Scoop and from Mo Darsey are mainly drawn from a taped conversation in 1983 among some of the surviving members of K Company. Ed.
 See the bibliography for these and other books mentioned. Ed.
I have already established that mining is hard, dirty, and dangerous work. But
you would have had to work in a mine to understand the full significance of
being a miner. If you will, come with me for a day in a coal mine.
It was a typical workday. The seven o’clock man-trip was punctual and our arrival at the belthead was timed to precision. The company had accounted for every minute of travel time and knew exactly when we would arrive at the working face. In this instance the working area was a freak of nature. A geologist had been called in to survey the situation and he told the company that sometime, maybe a thousand years ago, there had been a terrible upheaval there. The rock above the sandstone top had the appearance of having been churned. The sandstone itself, above the coal, had withstood the disturbance and remained intact. It was this cover that we had to “timber up” to prop the roof while we got the coal out.
Mining at this time was done with a machine called a continuous miner. This type of mining made all the old coal cutting machines obsolete, in that it would cut its own way forward through the rock and then scoop the coal onto a belt at the same time for its transport to the surface. The entries for the three main passageways for ventilation were to be advanced 2,600 feet and wider rooms driven off these. Hence, the coal in one entry was worked out as the room was advanced. When the half-mile depth was reached the continuous miners were moved to the opposite side of the belt and the process was repeated back toward the mainline entries. This method recovered about seventy percent of the available coal. When one entry was driven up and back, it represented about nine hundred by two thousand, six hundred feet of mined-out territory. The equipment would then be moved up the main line to another set-up, and the process repeated. You can begin to see that the more territory that’s mined out, the more pressure put on the mountain. Now consider three of these entries being mined out. Gravity should compel most of the roof to fall in, but it hadn’t. The sandstone cover chose to bend rather than break. As a result, the pressure grew and the mountain groaned. This is what the miners call a “mountain ride,” for instead of the roofs of the mined-out sections falling in, they lean onto the next one.
It is into this type of situation that I invite the reader to accompany me.
Our arrival each morning was routine. The beltway we rode to the working face was in the midst of this huge mountain ride. The timbers were set so thick you could scarcely see between them. As each shift mined its allotted distance the mountain pressure increased. Timbers even at the face would break, and as the miners cut across much effort had to be put into getting the timbers out of the way of the equipment. Each morning more timbers would be broken and each evening at quitting time one man would ride the belt out to see if it was safe for the rest to come. Some men laughed, some cursed, some were seemingly indifferent. But underneath you could see that every man was concerned with his safety and well-being.
The coal camp of Helen as seen from the steps of the Superintendent’s house circa 1950, looking east. Route 16 runs left to right across the photo. In the foreground to the left is the company store, obscuring the Grill. The movie theater is just to the right of the Grill. The bathhouse is the large building in the center.
Also taken from the Super’s house, looking northeast toward Foreman’s Bottom. Route 16 disappears off to the left toward Ury and Tams. The company store is at bottom right. Both photos are from the collection of George A. Bragg, Beaver, WV.
The pressure of the mountain caused the water to come out of any little fissure,
and the entire bottom became a quagmire of black mud. In winter, by the time we
arrived at the bathhouse at the end of the day our clothes would be frozen
solid. The pressure also forced methane gas out of the coal at a faster rate, so
it sounded like a thousand swarms of bees all buzzing together.
One day at the Otsego mine things were proceeding normally on the section, all the men busy cutting, drilling or loading coal on the pan line. Suddenly the cry came from one of the working faces: A large slab of rock had fallen on a black man nicknamed Pockets who was working as the driller. Soon the whole section was shut down and all the men were involved one way or another in getting him out. The room we were working in was about thirty feet wide and Pockets had been drilling when the slab of rock fell. Fortunately, there was a lot of fine dust from the cutter and this helped to hold the rock up while all of us busied ourselves with jacking the rock up and sliding timbers under it until we were able to pull him out from under the slate. Pockets survived but never again worked in the mines, although his wife would come to our home in Cedar Creek and pay his UMWA dues. I always asked her about Pockets. He lived only a few years after that. What I remember most about him is how he shoveled coal onto the pan line. It made no difference how far away he was from it, he could scoop up a shovel full and throw it and it would describe a large arc with all of the coal falling onto the pan line. I truly missed him after he passed away.
Another potential danger is fire. A fire close to the surface can present a miner with just as much danger as one at the working face, for the smoke is picked up by the incoming air and is carried throughout the entire mine. I was in a crew that had this happen one day. About midmorning the smell of smoke mingled with the taste of coal dust and at almost the same moment the cries came up the entry: “Fire! Fire down the belt!” It was obvious that we could go neither up the beltway nor along the intake air course, for we would be moving directly into the smoke. Our only recourse was to try to outrun the smoke down the exhaust entry. But in a matter of minutes the smoke began to overtake us. We had been assured the exhaust course was free of rock falls and water holes so we started in that direction. The further we went the more painfully clear it became that someone had lied to us. The rock falls became more frequent and we soon could go no further.
I remembered passing a solid stopping, a cinder block barrier separating the passageways, just a few yards back. Our only chance was that we had gone below the fire. I had my three-pound hammer with me and began to punch a hole in the cinder block. All of us were sick, coughing and vomiting because of the smoke.
I beat on the cinder block with all my might until a small hole the size of the hammerhead appeared. I pressed my nose to the hole and gulped in fresh air. We were below the fire. I yelled for the crew to gather close to the small hole, for the fresh air kept the smoke away until a larger hole could be made. Finally, we smashed a hole large enough for us to crawl through. After everyone was through we began to sniff at one another. Before “porta-pots” were installed in the mines it was a common practice for a miner to simply do his business in the exhaust airway. We discovered that every one of us smelled like the s*** we had been crawling through.
It dawned on us to take a head count and we found that one man was missing. “Where’s the boss?” someone yelled. We all started crawling as fast as we could through the thick timbers to look for him. “We might have to circle back,” said one of the men.
About four hundred feet up the belt we came upon another stopping with a hole in it. “Hey, wait a minute! Was this hole here when we were coming up the airway?” It hadn’t been. We found the boss safe and sound back in the working area. Now we knew why we couldn’t outrun the smoke. In order to save himself, the boss had deliberately shorted out the air’s passage and sent the smoke in on us.
Would you care to guess who smelled the worse to us?
You have spent a typical day in the mines with me. Would you make it a lifetime job?